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Review: The King and I at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

The King and I comes from a particularly lavish era of the musical – both in terms of big, beautiful melodies and the sheer size and sumptuousness of the visual spectacle.

Think Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Guys and Dolls, Singin’ In The Rain and of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein, purveyors of Technicolor tales of love, loss, nuns and Nazis.

This Lincoln Center production (on a UK tour via the West End) of The King and I certainly embraces that opulent heritage.

For a start it looks spectacular, thanks to Michael Yeargan’s exquisitely-realised sets – sensitively lit by Donald Holder – and Catherine Zuber’s detailed period costumes.

A lustrous gauzy curtain, which shimmers in different lighting hues, is pulled back dramatically to reveal the Leonowens’ arrival in Siam on a giant paddle steamer set against a deep oriental sunset.

It’s a splendid sight on the wide sweep of the Empire’s capacious stage, as is the cascade of flowers which frame the secret meetings of young lovers Tuptim (Jessica Gomes-Ng) and Lun Tha (Ethan Le Phong). Elsewhere the royal palace is realised with an imposing back wall and ornate pillars which slide through the action which swirls around them.

Annalene Beechey as Anna Leonowens. Photos by Matthew Murphy

The production doesn’t only look the part, but with a terrific 14-piece orchestra in the pit it sounds it too. They deserve the audience’s full attention in the smartly played overture rather than the somewhat rude hubbub of chatter. When the lights go down that’s the start of the show!

The musical is based on Margaret Landon’s book Anna and the King of Siam, and at the heart of all the swirling splendour it remains a story about the relationship between two people.

Annalene Beechey is pitch perfect as the proto-feminist widowed schoolteacher whose stubbornness brings her in to conflict with, and wins the admiration of, the equally unbending King Mongkut.

Her performance has a compelling warmth as does her airy delivery of some of the show’s biggest numbers including I Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance?

Darren Lee meanwhile injects his King of Siam with an enjoyable combination of imperiousness and impishness, and together the two create a keen sense of chemistry. More chemistry than the doomed lovers are able to achieve in their snatched moments.

The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Photo Matthew Murphy

The huge cast includes a collection of charming children as the king’s favourite offspring.

They’re slickly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, as is the extended ballet-within-a-show (a la An American in Paris) The Small House of Uncle Thomas which is one of the highlights of the evening.

Like the undercurrent of racism in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, elements of the King and I story are decidedly problematic in this day and age, not least the idea of a Westerner coming from a “civilised country” (as Anna rails to herself alone in her room) to teach the locals how to behave properly.

It’s true this troubling and awkward element does take on a little more nuance and complexity within the story – Anna, as the representative of the Western viewpoint, learns as much from the King through their interactions as he does by the process, and both emerge changed people with a more sympathetic understanding of each other’s worlds and perspectives.

And it does offer a little tangy food for thought amidst what is an opulent banquet of a show.

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